By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
When the manager arrived with my food order, I asked if the machine was connected to the Internet. After she confirmed that it was, I asked, "Do you ever worry that maybe Skynet is using it to control our minds — like in Terminator?" She looked at me blank-faced and admitted that she'd never seen the movie.
Despite its lack of a pink middle, the Royal burger was just as juicy and delicious as I remembered from my Albuquerque days: a one-third-pound, who-knows-what-grade of grilled beef patty covered with gobs of melted American cheese, an oily-crisp fried egg, cool slices of tomato and leaf lettuce, and served on a buttery, mayo-slathered toasted bun. Burger Works' 5 Alarm burger was another delicious trip down memory lane, with this patty topped by fresh jalapeños, melted pepper Jack cheese, smoky salsa, chipotle mayo and more lettuce and tomato, for a combo that was pleasantly warm but not crazed-insane hot. Even the veggie patty in the Banzai had a good, grilled taste — not easy with meatless burgers — and was juicy with pineapple, both salty and savory from the teriyaki sauce dripping over the edges of the bun.
Not only were the burgers at Burger Works just as good as the ones at Red Robin — Yum! — but I even liked the crispy, salt-and-peppered shoestring fries; the side of Thai chili ketchup was sweet and just spicy enough without overwhelming the spuds. I could easily have eaten more of them, but even though Red Robin's introduction of "bottomless" steak fries in 1994 really put the restaurant on the industry map, Burger Works does not offer bottomless anything. I later asked Jennifer Rivas, Red Robin's director of national marketing, about this. "We wanted to provide our guests with multiple different side options to complement their burgers, including our sweet-potato fries and onion straws, and the shoestring-style fries also give us a unique side option only available at our Burger Works locations," she said.
Since I like my beef with some "moo" left in it, I also asked Rivas why well-done-bleh is the only option at Burger Works. Her answer was pretty well-done-bleh, too: "Delivering on our promise of a fast, fresh and fiery burger is the highest priority for us, which required us to take into account the operational differences between our larger Red Robin restaurants and the small Burger Works prototypes," she said.
A larger Red Robin store uses a big convection oven with a conveyor belt to grill its burgers to order, giving customers the option of medium or well-done (rare is not even on the table in these E. coli-sensitive days). But the monstrously huge burger machine would take up too much space in a Burger Works; instead, the kitchen goes with an efficient, compact flat grill. And what grade of beef does Burger Works put on the grill? That question went to McKellar, who said he'd have to check; he later provided an answer that seemed copied off the website: "Our burgers are created using fresh, never frozen cuts of natural, American-grown beef free of preservatives and artificial ingredients."
I appreciate what Red Robin is trying to do with Burger Works, and the burgers definitely seem more gourmet than the options at Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Still, I couldn't help missing the easygoing feel and full-sized menu of the mothership. And the human contact, even if some of those humans are stuffed into chicken suits. Concerned that Skynet might really be pulling the strings at Burger Works, I asked Rivas if the home office ever worried that the Freestyle machine would become sentient and enslave humanity.
"We have all the confidence that Coca-Cola has prepared for any worse-case scenarios involving a Terminator-type machine revolution," she replied, "so we don't anticipate any problems of this nature."
Of course, that's exactly how someone controlled by machines would respond...
Slide show: Red Robin's "fast-cazh" foray